“Contextualizing” The Gospel In Africa

(This article was written in Kenya, East Africa.)

The Bible's life-giving message, in order to be meaningful to Africans, must be served in an African cup. But, so as not to develop into heresy, as it has in so many cases among the liberal religionists, the text of the Bible cannot be allowed to be swallowed up by the various cultures it confronts. In other words, if the truths taught in the Bible must first be sifted through the cultural sieve of the target society before they can be pronounced “genuine,” then the resulting combination is syncretistic and not “Christian” at all. On the other hand, if the Bible is seen as supra-cultural (standing over and above all cultures) but, at the same time, providing practical guidance and answers to the problems of life in every culture, then the various indigenous cultures can be filtered through the sieve of Biblical truths. As a result, cultural elements which are compatible with Scriptural norms are retained, while those which run counter to the norm must be either discarded or modified to reflect Biblical truths.

As we have said before, Kenyans are not Americans. In fact, the cross-cultural differences between American culture and Kenyan culture are formidable. Consequently, the American evangelist who thinks he can come to this African nation and effectively communicate the life-giving and soul-changing message of the gospel without becoming “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) is committing a grievous error. The linguistic, cultural, historical, and religious setting in Kenya is much different from that found in America. As a result, translating Biblical truths into Kenyan culture takes some practice. In reality, so many of the examples used in the American pulpit to illustrate Biblical truths simply do not work here in Kenya. In other words, in order to apply Biblical principles to Kenyan life, it is absolutely essential to know something about the African culture. Consequently, the reader can be certain that it is not just the Kenyans who have been going through a learning process—my wife and I have been learning a great deal also!!!!!!

By definition, Contextualization is the application of Biblical truths to the circumstances and situations to be experienced in a target culture. And although American culture, contrary to African culture, has been widely influenced by Biblical truths, nevertheless, Biblical principles have been “contextualized” in our society as well. For instance, it was necessary that the principle of the master-slave relationship articulated in the New Testament almost two thousand years ago be “contextualized” into the employer-employee relationship of our modern American society. Unfortunately, some Americans who have failed to do this have thought the New Testament to say nothing about our modern employer-employee relationship. Nevertheless, in order to be the kind of people the Lord wants us to be, we must “contexualize” the truths taught in the Bible to/into our modern society. Having learned how to do this in our own culture, we must now teach the Kenyans how to do the same thing in theirs.

The Process

The process of  “contextualization” involves a series of stages. The first thing that must happen is the translation of Scripture. Unfortunately, many of the native language translations here in Kenya are not good translations. For instance, the Kikuyu translation of Ephesians 5:19 says, “...singing and playing on an instrument...” instead of, “...singing and making melody in your heart....” Furthermore, the most prevalent English translation is the NIV, which leaves some things to be desired. Worse yet, many Kenyans use English paraphrases like “Good News For Modern Man.” On the positive side, many Kenyans can read English, therefore, if we can get a good English translation into their hands, then the problem of translating the Scriptures is solved for many. The NKJV (which is a translation I prefer) is available in some Kenyan bookstores, but is still a little hard to find. My wife and I have purchased and distributed many NKJV Bibles to those we believe are serious about studying God's Word. Many of these have been “award” Bibles that were presented to those in my wife's class for children at Nyeri. Several more expensive study Bibles with helps have been purchased by interested Christians in the States and we have hand-carried these into the country and given them to trusted and worthy students of the Word. In the future, we hope to do more along these lines.

Second, the truths of the Bible must be communicated. In doing this, the teacher ought to use the logic and terms familiar to the hearers so they will be able to understand the content of God's message to them. It is really surprising to learn that so few teachers know what teaching actually is. Many incorrectly assume that teaching is simply telling the student what the teacher knows. Of course, teaching, as any gospel preacher worth his salt will tell you, is helping the student to learn.

The message of the gospel must be learned, understood, and accepted in order to produce the changes the Lord expects in His followers. And although learning is the result of the effort of both teacher and student, too often the student fails to learn because the teacher has failed to teach. If the teacher does not help provoke the thought processes of the student concerning the content of God's Word and the principles contained therein, then the gospel has not been effectively communicated.

In Africa, the traditional Western teaching system seems to have failed. Western religious groups have been here for many years and have produced nothing much more than “Christo-pagans.” There are several reasons for this:

1) Many religious groups, in their effort to contextualize the gospel, have strained the text of the Bible through the sieve of African culture. What comes out the other end of this process has been described as “African Christianity,” a syncretism that is clearly African but far removed from anything that could genuinely be called “Christian.” For example, here in Kenya we hear talk among the liberal brethren about “African elders.” Upon a closer examination, one learns that these “elders” are not Scriptural elders at all. Instead, they are simply a reflection of the elder system found in African society. And although it is only fair to point out that such efforts are not the cause of the Christo-pagans we mentioned previously, nevertheless, such efforts at “contextualization” have served to degrade the Biblical text in favor of African culture. In turn, this has caused the ones being taught to be far less than the disciples the Lord expects them to be.

2) In recent years, neuroscience, the study of brain functioning, has made advances in its understanding of the learning process as it is related to the differences in the functioning of the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain. Just as some individuals are right handed and left handed, now it is believed that people are either right-brained or left-brained. This is certainly an oversimplification, but research has indicated that left-brained people think and learn differently than those who are right-brained.

Men are more left-brained (associated with analytical thinking, deductive reasoning, and the conceptualization and communication of ideas and objects through the symbol of words). The “scientific method” of gathering all the relevant facts and information, organizing them, and reasoning to a logical conclusion is perhaps the sine qua non of left-brain processes. On the other hand, women tend to be more right-brained (associated with intuition and feelings, and are holistic rather than analytical in that they see the whole but not the parts of the whole).

When we add to this the findings of educational psychologists, who are concerned with describing how people learn in terms of behavior, we learn of two learning styles which appear to correspond rather well to the functions of the left and right-brain. Based upon the social environment preferred by each style of learning, these two basic learning styles are called “field-independent” and “field-dependent.” The field-independent learners “approach their tasks analytically, separating the elements. They pay close attention to internal referents and are less influenced by social factors” (Earle and Dorothy Bowen, “Contextualizing Teaching Methods in Africa,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July, 1989, p. 272). On the other hand, field-dependent learners “approach situations ‘globally,’ that is, they see the whole instead of the parts. They rely on external referents to guide them in processing information. They have a social orientation.”

Now, what does this all mean for those of us trying to communicate the gospel here in Africa? Well, with some reservations, I tend to agree with Tony Wilmont, the first principal and project director of the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, who said: “We do not regard Western educational methodology as necessarily the best, and we consider that the unadjusted employment of Western methodology will not train an African” (“Guidelines for Faculty and Other Staff,” Unpublished manuscript, NEGST, 1983). And why is this? Because, 91 percent of  the African students tested by Earle and Dorothy Bowen (reported in the previously cited article) were field-dependent learners. Now, it should be noted that being field-dependent has nothing to do with one's intelligence or ability, but only has to do with how one thinks and learns. Knowing this and incorporating into our teaching method techniques geared toward right-brain, field-dependent learners should make our teaching of the African much more effective.

Third, one enters a teaching phase whereby the second stage is re-emphasized and expanded upon. At this stage the subtle nuances of Biblical truth, which are not always easily communicated to the hearers, are taught. In doing this, the teacher employs the thought patterns of the target audience as nearly as possible. Because the Bible is God's revelation to all men, I am confident it will translate into every culture. Our job as evangelists is to find the best way to do this. Once this is done, the responsibility then lies with the hearers. Then, and only then,  is the teacher free of their blood (cf. Acts 20:26-27).

Fourth, the hearer is encouraged to act upon what he has learned. This, of course, should be the ultimate object of all our teaching. If the student has not learned, and changed as a result of that learning, then the teacher has probably not taught effectively. Yes, the teaching of doctrine is absolutely necessary , and cannot be neglected, but the job is not done until the hearer begins to translate what he has learned into action. This is what Paul was talking about when he said: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).

Finally, and this is the fifth stage, the hearer should be encouraged to tell others in his culture what they need to do in order to obey the gospel (2 Timothy 2:2) and live faithfully before the Lord (Revelation 2:10). When this is done, the borders of the kingdom of God are expanded to include more and more people. This, of course, is God's plan, and if this process had not been accomplished in times past by faithful hearers of the Word, then you and I would have never had the opportunity to become citizens of the everlasting kingdom of God ourselves, much less, had the opportunity to teach it to others. In other words, we are not “out of the loop,” to use Washington D.C. parlance, we are the loop—that is, we are not just involved in a process, we are the process!

The pure, unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant to all people in all cultures because it is addressed to a mankind that is one in origin, nature, and spiritual need. Even so, the manner of expression and communication of this gospel differs from people to people and culture to culture. Yes, there are certainly Biblical guidelines for the work and worship of the church, and these guidelines must be rigorously adhered to, but at the same time we need to recognize that, apart from the “decently and in order” requirement of 1 Corinthians 14:40, there is no inflexible formula for the expression of worship for every culture.

For example, the religious music of Africa is very different from that found in most Western societies. Even though Scriptural guidelines eliminate the drum beating, clapping, and jumping associated with much of Africa's religious music, many African spiritual songs are sung to a rhythm that would probably be deemed inappropriate to many Westerners. Furthermore, even the “decently and in order” requirement of our worship assemblies are primarily culturally discerned and therefore is something that must be “contextualized” in every society.

Failing to understand this compels the foreign evangelist to force his own cultural standards onto the host culture. This may make the evangelist more comfortable in his own worship, but it is being done at the expense of his target audience. All such cultural tyranny will be eschewed by those trying to follow in the footsteps of Christians who were willing to become “all things to all men” so that they “might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

The apostle Paul wisely understood that in order for the gospel to come alive in the lives of indigenous people, it must first be clothed in the culture and lifestyles of its hearers. Ultimately, this means that those things found in any culture that are not condemned in Scripture may be preserved. Of course, where error exists, it must be exposed by the objective standard of God's Word and not the subjective think-sos of a foreign culture.

Hermeneutics And Contextualization

Any method employed to understand the text of Scripture as it was originally meant to be understood (hermeneutics) must give priority to the text itself. The current knowledge about left-brain right-brain learning ought not to force us to act like lame brains. In other words, if Africans are more amenable to right-brain learning techniques, then by all means let's use these methods to advantage; but—and here is a critical point—in doing so, let us remember that the logic required to understand the Bible is not that of the hearers of each culture—it is instead the logic used to produce the Bible in written form. The interpretation of any ancient text is not dependent upon modern logic. Rather, literature is understood by uncovering the mind-set of the author. This means that the text determines the method of interpretation. The reverse would be conceptual chaos.

The process we outlined earlier in this article is one of interaction between the text and the reader/ hearer. The duty is always on the reader/hearer to comprehend and conform to the objective standard of God's Word. And while the process is geared toward change, transformation flows from God to man and not the other way around. Hermeneutical principles derive from an analysis of the text itself. This is to say that the  Bible teaches by direct statements, approved apostolic examples, and necessary inferences. If this is true, and who can intelligently deny it, then in order to understand God's Word, one must be able to make necessary conclusions; that is, one must be able to use deductive reasoning, something usually associated with the analytical thinking of the left side of the brain. Consequently, if one is weak in this k ind of thinking, as most Africans seem to be, then this area needs to be strengthened, not ignored. This is what we are trying to do. On June 6th through 9th, 1995, I conducted a Bible seminar in Nyeri entitled “Learning How To Think Biblically,” which was designed to strengthen the Kenyan brethren’s left-brain thinking. There were 23 men in attendance. What follows are excerpts from the introduction to that study:

A wise man said: “Get wisdom! Get understanding!” (Proverbs 4:5). One cannot get understanding and wisdom without rational thinking. Consequently, this study is designed to help you think rationally, clearly, and consistently. Even more importantly, it is arranged to teach you how to think Biblically. Therefore, the textbook for our study will be the Bible....

The writer of Proverbs said, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). The fear mentioned here is really not terror or dread, as some might think. Actually, the closest English word would probably be “awe,” which conveys a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, wonder, and amazement. Elsewhere, speaking of the same idea, both fear and awe are used together: “Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (Psalm 33:8). Speaking for the Lord, Jeremiah said, “...let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD…” (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Therefore, if thinking correctly about God is the beginning place for knowledge, then it is with God that we ought to begin our study.

It is unfortunate that many who call themselves “Christians” today actually know very little about God. They are engaged in “church activities,” given pep talks, provided how-to-do-it lectures, and preached how-to-be-saved sermons. As a result, they are told to pray to God, live godly lives, and lead others to God. They are told to give to God, serve God, have a desire to see Him and spend an eternity with Him; but seldom, if ever, are they really taught anything about God. In fact, the prevailing picture of God, among those who still believe in Him, seems to be that of a large, powerful, kindly gentleman who treats us as an affectionate grandfather might do, with occasional bouts of needed judgment coupled with a generous amount of forbearance.... If this sad picture is truly indicative of what is going on in churches of Christ, then many New Testament Christians know frightfully little about God’s attributes and characteristics.

According to the apostle Paul, such ignorance is truly a “shame” (1 Corinthians 15:34). According to Jesus, worship, in order to be pleasing to God, must be in spirit and truth (John 4:24). This means that true worship must not just be with the right attitude or spirit, but it must be intelligent and knowledgeable as well. For example, although there were surely many reasons why the Samaritan woman’s worship was not acceptable to God, the primary reason was stated by Jesus when He said, “You worship that which you do not know” (John 4:22). In the same way, the Athenians vainly worshipped at the altar inscribed: “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23). Paul makes it absolutely clear that such “worship without knowing” is totally unacceptable to God (Acts 17:23b)

In addition to the nature and characteristics of God, the brethren attending this seminar also learned what the Bible has to say about the nature of man. Finally, they learned what the Bible says about the subjects of death and dying. Forced to think about concepts and ideas they had never before considered, the brethren's thinking was sharpened and left-brain activity was improved. In addition to learning things they did not know about God, themselves, and the much tabooed subjects of death and dying, they learned a further respect for the all-sufficiency of Scripture. And although they don't fully comprehend it yet, they learned a hermenuetical process derived from Scripture itself, a process dedicated to a historical-grammatical-contextual method of exegesis that will stand them in good stead in the years to come.

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